Despite Distance and a Pandemic, Military Spouses Find Solace in the USO’s Virtual Book Club

By Marcie Smith West

Life as a military spouse can be a lonely one. With constant moves to new cities, states or countries, it can sometimes be difficult to build and maintain friendships, especially in the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic where isolation was the norm.

However, one group of military spouses decided to forge friendships and connect with other military spouses in their community – all through a shared love of reading and an online book club hosted by the USO.

How Three Military Spouses Around the Globe Were Brought Together Through Books

Cassandra Williams, Melissa Rognlie and Jeanny Benavides met a year ago because of their shared love of reading, with each of them finding a passion for books through different avenues.

Williams renewed her love of reading through audiobooks and a family virtual book club. Rognlie spent much of her childhood outside reading in a tent in Emerald Grove, Wisconsin, and continued the hobby into adulthood. And Benavides committed to only read in English when she immigrated from El Salvador to San Antonio, Texas. Although stationed in Germany, Japan and Guam, these women would soon be able to share their hobby with one another.

The USO Pacific Virtual Book Club was launched in May 2020 as part of the USO’s Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program – and it brought Williams, Rognlie and Benavides together to discuss books and become friends.

Despite all the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USO’s adoption of virtual program offerings in 2020 allowed the USO Pacific region – where a large number of service members and military spouses are stationed – to host a program that simultaneously served multiple communities. In doing so, participants in these events and programs were able to connect not only with others in their local area but the rest of Asia and the world as well.

“It was perfect for me,“ Rognlie said. "Not only could I participate in my home, but I also didn’t have to worry about childcare during the pandemic and my husband’s deployment.”

Benavides also noted how easy it was for her to join the online book club and that she looked forward to the program each month. She had joined in-person book clubs before and noted how something always got in the way of physically attending the meetups. With the virtual book club, that was no longer a problem.

“It was the highlight of my day,” Benavides said. “It was great to see everyone. There was a different feeling to meet all of you all over the world.”

While the USO Pacific Virtual Book Club always remained a small group, it allowed Williams, Rognlie and Benavides a chance to truly become friends.

“I would never have had this opportunity to get to know women on the other side of the world,” Williams said. “Even though we are experiencing the same pandemic, the way our host countries are responding has been completely different.”

Rognlie agreed.

“I truly think of all the women as friends,” she said. “We discuss the books, but I am excited to spend time with them and catch up each month. Book clubs create a unique connection among a particular type of people. We get each other.”

For Benavides, the book club gave her solace.

“It came at the right time because we weren’t allowed to go anywhere when the pandemic hit,” she said. “More women want to do what I want to do, which is read.”

Building Military Spouse Connections Across Oceans Through Reading

All three women participated in each book club discussion group, even when the local time change last fall meant an earlier start time for Williams, who is stationed in Germany. When the program was offered later to make it easier for Williams, it only made sense to formally invite spouses in Europe to participate, too.

USO Pacific and USO Europe soon teamed up to provide a book club with an even greater reach, beginning the USO Global Virtual Book Club.

“The collaboration of the Global Virtual Book Club represents the ‘silver lining’ effects of the pandemic,” said USO Europe Regional Operations Manager Misty Bellotte. “This opportunity allowed us to increase program engagement, connect more deeply with fellow staff members and provide opportunities for attendees to create lasting bonds across the miles over the shared love of reading.”

Williams, Rognlie and Benavides have now taken on leadership roles within the global program. Benavides was especially excited to get more involved with the book club.

“I want others to be able to share what we shared last year. I know people are tired of Zoom and other online programs, but it offers you a chance to meet people from all over the world that you wouldn’t be able to meet otherwise,” she said.

“I would like for others to have that feeling and hope for that happiness. Because when you see faces that you know, you feel joy. Even though we haven’t met in person, I know you.”

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